Teenagers In Real Life (irl) – A Very Short Story

This actually happened:

Two seniors walked into the school courtyard yesterday. They were both holding their phones out in front of them.

Senior 1 said, “Who’s your best friend?”

Senior 2 said, “I’m not sure. Lemme check…” Then he looked at his phone. “Oh, it’s you!”

“Wait, what?” Senior 1 tilted his head his head to the side. “That’s not right.”

“No, it is. Look, you’re my best friend. It says so right here.” He tilted his phone’s screen so his friend could see it.

“Nope,” Senior 1 said. “See this?” Now he held his phone up to his friend’s face. “You’re not my best friend. It says so right here.”

Paddling North Five Days On The River – Day One

Mary_S_Young_Park_3633_Swart_ODFW

Plate-glass morning water with fish shatters. A hummingbird drops over the tent and hangs in the space created by the rain.

I read a Carol Shields novel and the daylight sneaks through the leaves of the cottonwood, white and green.

It rained steady all evening, and starting a fire was like baking without sugar or flour. But now the sky is striped by blue between clouds, and I think, “How many people in history have tried to write about clouds?”

Nubes como las olas…

Nubes sin mala intención…

Drifting thoughts of clouds…

Or some other cliché…

Better ideas waiting that I’ve never had…

It would be easy to steal. To Thomas Edison. To feed an image of greatness. “Look at me, a worker, a brilliant mind.”

But I am not brilliant. My mind is not a rare jewel. I only observe what is around me. Seeing the green grasshoppers collecting on my legs at the river’s edge. The blue heron shushing across to the other side. The osprey sitting sentinel on the fence-post above the cutbank. Flipping my spinner under the branch in four feet of water and the rainbow trout hitting the Rooster Tail in the first rotation of the reel.

We use two rocks as a plate and eat the fish with our fingers. Skin salted with Johnny’s, MSG, meat blackened over a stick-fire. Hot Tang and Folgers from boiled river water.

These are no proverbs.

These are no parables.

This is only the first day. How it is. How it was.

An Agent Tells About Submitting Her Authors’ Manuscripts To Editors

betsy-lerner

Agent Betsy Lerner (author of The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice To Writers) tells what it’s like to submit manuscripts to editors:

“I learned that for every project you sold, you still received about ten rejections, sometimes more. I learned that some editors never responded at all. My agent group nicknamed one the Bermuda Triangle; everything you sent to her disappeared forever. Some editors had their assistants read the manuscripts and/or write the rejections, which had the whiff of college term papers. It was bad getting rejected; it was worse getting rejected by some Williamsburg hipsters who vape.”

Perfect.

Full article here.

7 Strong Opinions: If You Want To Be A Great Artist, Don’t Eat Fat Chunks Of Half-Cooked Mediocrity

Mushy food

A few years ago, I finished writing and revising my first publishable literary novel (I say “publishable” because I’d written a lot of garbage-pseudo-literary fiction before my first published novel, and that trash fiction was thankfully never published).

While I went through the whole publishing process with my first novel – revisions, copy-editing, covers, blurbs, publicity, etc. – I almost destroyed my own mind.

How did I do this? By reading a lot of commercial nonfiction.

That might seem dramatic, but it isn’t. Reading a large quantity of commercial nonfiction was a horrible decision. Don’t get me wrong, I thought I was doing the right thing. I had a best friend who loved and recommended nonfiction to me, and I kept reading the material he gave to me. From there, I branched out and tried other informative nonfiction.

But I’m not being dramatic when I say that the regular reading of nonfiction affected me. I struggled to write high-quality literary fiction for two years after, and regularly discovered myself thinking more simply about everyday issues. As an artist, I was becoming mentally simplistic. Vacuous. Vapid.

It’s not that nonfiction is terrible writing, and it’s not that nonfiction is inherently a bad thing. BUT…commercial nonfiction is incredibly mediocre writing. If all writing is bathwater, commercial nonfiction is tepid, luke-warm, not worth getting into, and certainly not worth submerging in for long periods of time.

I know I sound harsh, but if producing great art is your goal, then don’t immerse yourself in mediocre art. Set high standards, and maintain those high standards.

Here are seven strong opinions on the topic:

1. Keep your internet visits short. VERY FUCKING SHORT.

The internet is a festering puss pond of mediocrity. Have you ever sat next to someone while he’s surfing Facebook? That catatonic, slack-mouthed, dead-eyed face he makes while he stares at the screen? That once-every-10-minutes “Whoa, you gotta see this” exclamation?

Or long episodes of hanging out on Twitter?

Scrolling through other people’s Instagram photos?

Looking up sports gossip?

Celebrity news updates?

Set a time limit with the internet and stick to it. Say, “I’ve got ten minutes to answer these two emails, post once, and get offline.” Then stick to your time limit. CLOSE THE LAPTOP.

2. Don’t read mediocre writing.

My mother raised me on the phrase “Readers are leaders,” and I love that phrase because it’s true. If you’re not a reader, you’re not a great artist. It’s as simple as that. Great books and memoirs and poetry develop creativity. They make your mind work. The metaphors and complicated structures and narrative arcs force your mind to find new connections, spark analogous thinking, enhance mental divergence. If you want to be a great artist of any kind, you have to be a great reader.

But although I love the phrase “Readers are leaders,” it’s not completely true, or it’s not completely true in all cases. What you choose to read does matter. Selection matters. For example, if you read only Amish Murder Mysteries (a real genre in publishing that sells quite well) or Paranormal Romance, for example, you’re never going to create great art. That’s a fact.

To create great art, read great art.

3. Don’t watch reality television.

The average person in The United States watches hours of reality television every week, and some of the most popular shows on television are reality shows. So reality shows are – by definition – what the middle watches. The average. The mediocre middle of America.

Most artists know that reality shows won’t help them produce great art, but what about the opposite effect? Can watching bad reality shows negatively affect you as an artist?

Bad Input = Bad Output?

That seems like a logical equation.

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Let’s take The Bachelorette on ABC for example since it was listed by TV guide as the most popular show on television last week. This is a show about a young woman looking for love, and two dozen men trying to be the last man standing. It seems like a classic plot, right? But if great art is the goal, then the specifics of the art matter.

In The Bachelorette, no character has any depth, people’s lives are made up of dates, roses, feelings, alcohol, more feelings, more alcohol, talks, swimming, hot-tubbing, and eating while drinking more alcohol and again talking about feelings. Also, everyone on the show speaks in the passive voice:

“Feelings are getting intense.”

“Tough conversations need to be had.”

“Things are being said that I don’t like.”

Wait, who did what?

Why can’t those subjects do any actions?

Even the better reality shows, shows with more powerful conflicts, shows like Naked And Afraid on Discovery, are – unfortunately – formulaic. Since Naked And Afraid is a true survival show meaning the (contestants? stars? participants?) actually suffer physically while trying to survive for 21 days, all of the conflicts are the same show to show. While trying to survive, will the two people find quality drinking water? Will one of the people start a fire? Will either of them find much to eat? Those questions are great for a little while, but not for long. Every show is the same. And the mundane is the unimaginative.

4. Study art.

– Go to the Picasso museum in Barcelona. Watch Picasso’s developmental process unfold room to room. Examine his mental process as he becomes more abstract.

– Read at least five Toni Morrison novels.

– Listen to Wu-Tang. Then listen to Jay-Z’s The Blueprint.

– Go to the Vatican in Rome, and stare at each sculpture for a long, long time. Think about chiseling any of those marble sculptures out of one giant block, start to finish, no mistakes.

– Read Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson over and over.

– Listen to Mad Villain’s beats.

– Read Dorianne Luax’ poetry. For something completely different, read Kay Ryan’s.

– Stare at Jackson Pollock’s “Autumn Rhythm” until you can see a rhythm.

– Read contemporary poetry and fiction in the literary journals Tin House and The Missouri Review.

– Listen to Bob Dylan’s Biograph collection, and dwell on the lyricism. Then listen to Adele cover Bob Dylan and sing each song infinitely better.

– Peruse a different painter online each month (Google images is an amazing and free resource for learning a painter’s body of work).

– Watch highlight compilation videos of Barry Sanders playing running back.

5. Attempt to understand other people’s lives (and/or suffering).

Although many, many TV shows are about the richest most best looking people on the entire planet, this is not what great art is about. Great art is about empathy and depth and creativity and wonder and struggle. I don’t mean that you can’t be a great artist if you grew up in The Hamptons, but I am saying that you’ll never be a great artist if you stay in The Hamptons your whole life because great art isn’t about one thing, and it certainly isn’t about a few monochromatic rich people who live in boring, daily unreality.

So try something different:

– Talk to illegal immigrants.

– Feed the hungry.

– Work with the homeless.

– Talk to people who are different from you, to people who work different jobs, to people who’ve made different choices, to people who speak different languages. And while we’re talking about languages, learn another language. Don’t be an American who’s content with only speaking English.

– Ask good questions and really listen to other people’s answers. Don’t try to interject with your own better stories or your really funny comebacks or comments. Listen to other people. Imagine their entire lives, waking to sleeping. Be in their houses. Wear their clothes. Sleep with their lovers. Raise their children.

6. Break rules.

My agent recently told me that she couldn’t sell a piece of fiction because the dialogue was a mess. I said, “What kind of a mess?”

She said, “It’s too perfect. No one uses any contractions.”

Dialogue is a careful mixture of eloquence and atrocious grammar. Correct structure and god-awful colloquialisms. The masters of dialogue break rules in perfect ways, and in the creation of great art, we must break rules often. Judiciously.

Think of Gwendolyn Brooks enjambment to break the simple rhymes of “We Real Cool.”

Or Leonardo da Vinci digging up dead bodies?

Or Jimi Hendrix with his homemade distortion pedals?

Yo Yo Ma warping time with his elongated cello swells?

Sylvia Plath going DARK in her personal narratives.

7. Finally, don’t follow anyone else’s advice.

Not even mine. You can follow some of it, sure. Some of it will work with you. But you have to set your own standards. And the truth is, I don’t always follow my own advice. None of us do. We’re all hypocrites. But I keep pushing. I keep trying. And you can too. Set your own high standards, and try to live up to those standards most of the time.

But be your own person. Do your own thing. Find your own artistic outlet and push, push, push yourself to improve. Don’t become complacent and don’t allow yourself to wallow in your own mediocrity. Work on your weaknesses. You aren’t born with talent. You earn talent through daily and monthly and yearly choices, actions, and discipline.

Finally, don’t congratulate yourself too much if you have a moment of success because what is success anyway? Success is one of those cheap 4th of July sparklers on a short metal stick. It may not light. It may not stay lit. And even if it sparks into something bright green and orange and yellow, you’re likely to burn your own hand before the process is over.

Italian Translation of LET THEM BE EATEN BY BEARS Released

My Italian publisher, RCS Libri, has released the Italian version of Bears (Lasciateli giocare con gli orsi), and I did my first Italian interview this last week. Good Earth publishing, China, is currently translating the book into Chinese.

Click to see RCS Libri’s book page.

And the cover:

2857079-9788891503312

 

Rejection Letter TO An MFA Program

Four years ago, I was accepted by the University of Montana’s MFA fiction program. My wife and I liked Missoula, the campus, the outdoor possibilities, the family housing, and the writing faculty. The fiction/nonfiction program at Montana had a long, respected tradition. The whole situation was perfect for us.

But, inexplicably, the directors didn’t offer me a TA or GTF position when I was accepted. At first they said that I could teach intro to composition classes, then they changed their minds. This was strange to me because my teaching experience at that time – 8 years – was much more significant than my writing experience. I had very few publications but my teaching credentials were excellent. Yet they didn’t offer me a chance to teach, and thus I didn’t have enough money to attend. We spoke multiple times on the phone, and they encouraged me to join the program even without a graduate teaching position. They wanted me to work with them. They said it would all work out. And maybe it would have.

But I thought that working a low-wage job off campus, with no health insurance, wasn’t going to suffice, considering that I was married and had a small child, so I had to decline my offer of acceptance. The following is my rejection letter to the faculty of the University of Montana MFA program – cut and pasted from my email. Warning: I might not have been very mature back then.

Subject: My Decision

Dear Faculty:

Weeks ago, I decided that I would attend Montana or no MFA
program at all.  Unlike other top schools, I’ve heard only good
things about Montana.  Nothing about it being overly competitive, too
large, too small, too incestuous.  You, the faculty, are
spoken well of by current and former students.  Workshops are productive
and writers get published.  People leave your program
feeling that they were part of a community for two years, that they did
not go into that room alone.
And so I am sad to turn you down.  I appreciate your acceptance,
your kind words, and the encouragement you have given
me.  I still respect you deeply.  I wish I could have studied fiction
and nonfiction with you.  “My poverty, but not my will,
consents.”  Shakespeare and I spoke recently about food stamps and the
WIC program.  Our whole conversation was in iambic pentameter.
Life is good. I sent my memoir to New York last week, one of my
articles was purchased by Canada’s top climbing
magazine, and my three-year-old learned to spell her name.  So life is
good.  And I will keep writing.
If you get down your TA list that is NOT based on teaching
ability (I have impeccable teaching references), financial need
(my family received public assistance), or scholastic performance (I
earned a 4.0 during my first Master’s), then you are welcome
to contact me.  I will be writing in my kitchen, in the mornings, before
work.
Sincerely,
Peter Brown Hoffmeister.